No one was harder on Mary Tyler Moore than Mary Tyler Moore. “I was brought up to be a perfect person, or to look like a perfect person,” she admitted in her first memoir, “After All” (1995). Her sitcoms convinced audiences she was the best girl in the world — and the pressure to measure up to her characters kept her grinning.
“Being Mary Tyler Moore,” a charming documentary directed by James Adolphus, aims to peek under the smile. We catch a glimpse of her sorrows and frustrations, of disappointments and deaths (and, yes, of that stinker where she played a nun who swoons for Elvis). But the film itself is so smitten by Moore that it skips over the worst of her self-inflected wounds. Like, for instance, Moore’s discussion in her book of when she’d get drunk and play Russian roulette with her car before eventually embracing sobriety, and, with it, the relief of confessing her flaws.
Fair enough. There’s plenty to talk about simply touring Moore’s career, although plaudits from Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Reese Witherspoon are merely quick hits of celebrity glitz. The film is structured by archival footage of two television interviews with Moore. The first, from 1966, is sexist and condescending. The second, conducted 15 years later, is empathetic and probing. Between them, Moore had reshaped how women were treated on the small screen.
She’d be quicker to call herself a realist than a feminist. Yet, we’re struck by how little of her TV persona was real. America’s favorite singleton hadn’t been single since high school — and its favorite plucky careerist had, in truth, lost jobs for being pregnant or requesting a raise. The irony is that Moore’s perfect image advanced the culture even as it hobbled her own joy.
Being Mary Tyler Moore
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 59 minutes. Watch on HBO platforms.